By Heather Clower
The Parsons Advocate
The Honorable Judge James Courrier began his reign over Tucker County Circuit Court with the arraignments of three individuals indicted by the Grand Jury. Entering first on one charge of first-degree arson was James Nelson, resident of the Dry Fork area, with his defense attorney Daniel James. Judge Courrier explained that the sentence associated with first-degree arson is two to twenty years, which is a definitive sentence that an exact term would be set. Nelson entered a plea of not guilty before Prosecuting Attorney Ray LaMora made a motion to set bond for $50,000 cash only. James responded, stating that the request was “outrageous” and that Nelson is a lifelong resident of the county and feels the bond should be nothing more than personal recognizance. Judge Courrier decided to set bond at $35,000 PR with $5,000 being required in cash or property. Nelson will return on November 13 at 10:30 a.m.
The charges against Nelson coincide with those of Lester Mook, represented by Defense Attorney Pat Nichols on charges of three counts of burglary in the second degree, (aiding and abetting), and one count of first-degree arson. Each count of burglary carries a one to 15-year sentence and arson carries a definitive two to a twenty-year potential sentence. Nichols felt that the reports were incomplete, stating, “It doesn’t look like there’s very much supplied today other than pictures.” LaMora responded that the reports are in progress and discovery is ongoing, though the informant is worried about his/her’s well-being.
Nichols told the court, “My client doesn’t have much,” after Lamora requested bond of $50,000 cash only. Nichols stated his client is currently living with his parents in Va. where he is employed, and, “We don’t have any ability to make bond in this matter.” Nichols continued, stating he has never missed a court appointment in the past and does not feel he is a risk, therefore requests a PR bond. Judge Courrier agreed and set L. Mook’s PR bond at $65,000 with the requirement he calls the Tucker County Day Report three times a week to check-in. L. Mook will return on November 13 at 9:30 a.m.
Tammy Mook, also of the Dry Fork area, was arraigned on four counts of burglary and one count of arson, all relevant to the same crime. Representing T. Mook was Defense Attorney Brent Easton. Judge Courrier informed her of the potential sentences associated with these crimes, which are one to 15 years per each burglary charge, and a definitive sentence of two to 20 years for arson. Once again, LaMora requested a $50,000 bond be set at cash only, however, Easton opposed due to health issues, the age of the crime, and that his client doesn’t pose a threat. LaMora responded that residents of the community do feel their safety is at risk as well as the potential for falling victim to future burglaries. Judge Courrier set the bond at $75,000 PR with the understanding T. Mook must check in with the Tucker County Day Report three times per week. She will return on November 13 at 10:45 a.m.
According to case files, a confident, cooperating informant (CI) made several calls from Tygart Valley Regional Jail, knowing the calls were recorded, the CI spoke of multiple burglaries that coincide with an increase in crime of rental and vacation dwellings in the Canaan Valley area. On May 22, 2020, LaMora requested Investigator Kevin Keplinger to obtain copies of the recordings in preparation for a bond reduction hearing. On June 11, 2020, Keplinger received the recording which included 89 phone calls ranging in times from eight minutes and 53 seconds to 22 minutes and 32 seconds to various people. On recording number 40, which lasted six minutes and eight seconds, the CI spoke to a female subject when the topic of burglaries was brought up. “It was Tammy…Tammy Nelson (Mook)….and me,” said the CI.
During an interview with the CI, details relating to the burglary and arson, taking place on February 28 of 2019, of a dwelling on 1675 Dry Fork Road were provided where Nelson allegedly told T. Mook to burn the house. The report said Nelson stated he had been trying to purchase the property and the value would decrease and the owners may agree to sell. According to the interview, T. Mook and the CI entered the dwelling, removed numerous items, including “a really old registration,” before T. Mook and the CI placed rags in the sinks, poured cooking oil on the rags, and then struck matches to start the fire. The CI further stated that he/she had a video on Facebook Messenger detailing the crime, which was then provided. The CI also referred to L. Mook using walkie talkies and monitoring scanner traffic as the crimes were taking place.
On July 21, 2020, a search warrant was issued and performed at the residence of the CI which uncovered several of the items described as stolen from the dwelling, including owl decor and an old registration with the last name of Huffman.
Canaan Valley Fire Department Chief Robert Metzger was consulted about the fire they responded to where he stated the structure was fully involved when they arrived at 6:41 a.m. The owner of the property is listed as Martinsburg resident, Mary Rouse. Upon contact, she acknowledged that the property was a family-owned vacation dwelling, and the grandfather’s last name was Huffman. Rouse then recalled some owl decor and other items that would have been in the dwelling that was found at the residence of the CI.
Rouse was asked if she had any idea of someone with a motive to set fire to the property. She responded by saying the only person she could think of was James Nelson. She said that Nelson had been asking if the property was for sale and he had been told no. According to Rouse, Nelson had approached several family members asking about purchasing the property and was told it was not for sale, and also re-approached the family just days after the fire and (allegedly) asked, “Since the house burnt down, and the property value was less if they would be interested in selling now.”
On September 23, 2020, Investigator Keplinger and Tucker County Sheriff B.K. Wilfong escorted the CI to the Dry Fork Road and Flat Ridge area of Tucker County where he/she proceeded to identify several residences burglarized by T. Mook and the CI, including the residence of Linda Eddings in Red Creek. The CI stated that during the Eddings burglary, he/she dropped off T. Mook where she entered the residence by a back porch door. The CI then drove to Canaan Valley Store and waited approximately one hour before returning. At that time, T. Mook drug a yellow portable generator set taken from the residence to the vehicle driven by CI. The CI further stated that the last known location of the generator was on Allmosta Road, at the residence of Lester and Tammy Mook.
On Tuesday, October 6, several officers served a search warrant at the residence of T. Mook. During the course of this warrant, items of property including radios potentially utilized during the crimes were discovered.
After the three arraignments, Judge Courrier presided over a status hearing of Darrell Spitznogle of Davis, represented by Defense Attorney Morris Davis. Spitznogle appeared via teleconference as he is incarcerated on one count of sexual assault in the first degree and six counts of sexual abuse in the first degree.
According to the complaint from February 13, 2020, former Tucker County Sheriff D.A. Sliwinski observed an interview of a 16-year-old male that was conducted by the Child Advocacy Center (CAC). This interview was set up due to the victim disclosing sexual abuse by the defendant, while the victim was at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington (PIW), due to suicidal thoughts and concerns. During the CAC forensic interview, the victim allegedly disclosed multiple incidences of sexual abuse by his cousin, the defendant. He stated the incidents occurred multiple times when the victim was between the age of nine and 11. Spitznogle, born in 1967, was between the ages of 46 and 48 at the time of the alleged incidents. During these three years, the victim described three incidents that occurred in Room 121 of the Sawmill Lodge, where the defendant was residing at the time. On each of these occasions, the victim was sexually abused by the defendant. The victim stated he attempted to stay away and said no to the defendant. The victim further stated he did not disclose this information while it was occurring due to the defendant stating things like, “people will hate you, and I will go to jail and the family business will fail without me.”
Davis prepared a motion to dismiss, which took longer than expected to be provided to Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Frank Bush, therefore requested returning at a later date to discuss the motion. Davis did state that the reasoning behind the motion to dismiss was due to a lack of specificity. Spitznogle will return to court on November 17 at 3:30 p.m.
Joshua Swisher, entered the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit with ankles and wrists in chains and shackles. Representing the defendant was Defense Attorney Brent Easton, who was unaware his client was back in custody, which is allegedly due to a parole violation on another charge. Swisher was charged in Tucker County with two counts of grand larceny, two counts of conspiracy, and one count of changing or altering a manufacturing number.
According to the report, on April 15 of 2016, Swisher, along with another individual, conspired to steal a 2000 model Rittenour Trailer, located at Kidwell Auto Parts, and owned by Cynthia Harman. Swisher and the other subject then conspired to remove the license plate and replace it with another tag registered to the other individual, then move the trailer to a truck yard in Preston County. At the location, Sergeant D.W. Simmons of W.Va. State Police recovered the trailer while it was in tow by Swisher. The value of the trailer was listed at $10,000.
Bush requested permission of the court to include 404B evidence, which relates to a previous time of which the defendant committed to showing character and motive. Corporal N. Bittinger with Garrett County, Md. Sheriff Department testified via phone of charges brought against Swisher in his jurisdiction, which occurred in July of 2016. After an investigation and evidence were presented in court, Swisher pleaded guilty and was sentenced to the theft of property between $10,000 and $100,000 in value.
Once Bush presented his grounds for requesting this evidence be permitted for the Tucker County charges against Swisher, Easton argued that the situation does not meet the threshold to qualify for the 404B rule. Judge Courrier agreed with Easton and denied Bush’s motion. A trial date has been set for January 7 and 8, 2021, with a pretrial date of December 11 at 10:30 a.m.
Entering the courtroom was Kenneth Smith with Counsel Phil Isner with the intent to accept a plea agreement. Smith was charged with one count of possession with intent to deliver marijuana and five counts of possession of a controlled substance. The agreement stated if Smith pled guilty to one count of possession with intent to deliver marijuana, a felony with a potential sentence of one to five years, the remaining five counts would be dismissed.
These charges were the result of officers arriving at the scene due to a dog fight. Upon entering the dwelling, bags containing a substance that appeared to be marijuana were observed along with scales. Another individual at the scene told the police that Smith used and sold marijuana. Smith was sworn in by Circuit Clerk Sharon Moats and entered his plea of guilty. Judge Courrier ensured Smith understood the plea before accepting.
Isner made a motion for Judge Courrier to consider a deferred adjudication for his client, which offers the defendant probation before sentencing. If the defendant successfully completes the requirements set forth by the court, at the end of the term the charge can be dismissed or reduced. Isner’s grounds for the motion are that his client is only 26 years of age with a home and a good job that a lifelong felony could ruin. Isner stated, “Marijuana is not as serious as other drugs,” and doesn’t see the point or the necessity of incarcerating his client.
LaMora objected to the motion, agreeing that the substance was not methamphetamine or cocaine, but Smith is still a drug dealer and, “He doesn’t need a pass on it, he doesn’t need a deferred adjudication.”
After consideration, Judge Courrier agreed with Isner, stating, “It seems to me that’s what that law (the deferred adjudication) is intended to do.” The potential one to five-year sentence was reduced to three years of probation with participation in the Tucker Day Report program as long as they and the Probation Officer felt necessary.
There were several more cases on the docket for the day, but due to unforeseen circumstances, those hearings will be rescheduled.
The accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty.